Youngsters getting shot with Pens’ stars

by Sergei J. Feldman ||

You know about the whole depth-down-the-middle thing going on in Pittsburgh nowadays, right? Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal.

But how about another three? How about Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson and Dustin Jeffrey — three prospects within the organization looking to make Pittsburgh their permanent home as early as October 2010?

After a disappointing Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, general manager Ray Shero and his staff decided to retool. While the temptation to chase after a high-end wing to complement one of their centers certainly existed — as it does almost every offseason — Shero elected to bolster his blue line instead and signed unrestricted free-agent defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to five-year deals, rounding out what could looks like one of the NHL’s top defensive units.

That still leaves the Penguins looking like a team ripe with opportunity if you’re a top-six forward.

Enter Tangradi, Johnson and Jeffrey — a trio of wings with game-breaking prospects. But their on-ice development and overall growth since joining the organization just might result in the hiring of a real-estate agent to assist in the process of finding homes for all three in Pittsburgh.

Fortunately for the Penguins, each brings with him a different story and skill set. The Pens’ recent prospect development camp, which all three players attended, served as a sort of first step in the process of earning an opening-night roster spot.

"There’s a time when we have to give these guys an opportunity," Shero said of the in-house forward candidates after inking Martin and Michalek on July 1. "We have guys like Tangradi that should be pushing for a spot. We have Dustin Jeffrey, Nick Johnson. These guys are deserving of some looks."

So as camp got under way, Tangradi recognized the importance of starting on a positive note.

"For a few guys that are coming into this (development) camp, I think first impressions are huge," he told "I think every step along the way is going to be a huge factor in who makes the club. You can’t put too much pressure on yourself, but I think you need to work extremely hard and make the organization happy with how your summer has gone."

Jeffrey shared a similar sentiment and acknowledged the challenge.

"Just jumping into practices is tough, especially when it’s the middle of July," he told "But it’s about coming in and testing well. That’s the big thing. It’s a good measure at the halfway point (of the summer). The main camp is in September and that’s what we’re all trying to prepare for here."

Tangradi, a 2007 second-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks who came over in the Chris KunitzRyan Whitney deal in 2009, already has one game of NHL experience — a 13-minute stint in the regular-season finale against the New York Islanders. He had 17 goals and 39 points in 65 AHL games; with his pedigree and 6-foot-4, 221-pound size, that one-game audition likely won’t be his only NHL experience.

Johnson played six NHL games last season, netting a goal and an assist. Jeffrey, a 22-year-old sixth-round pick in 2007, has the most NHL experience — 15 games over the last two seasons, but just one in 2009-10. This summer’s development camp was his fourth, and he’s continued to enter every offseason as a question mark to make the team and keep a spot.

"Everybody in the (American Hockey League) wants this job," he said. "Everyone in the AHL wants to come to Pittsburgh. You know if you’re not thinking that way or if you’re not working hard to try to come up you’re going to be left behind."

So far, all signs have pointed toward Jeffrey’s readiness, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Todd Reirden, who ran the prospect camp, was pleased with what he saw.

"He hasn’t looked out of place at all," Reirden told

Jeffrey went from 11 goals and 37 points in 63 games in his first AHL season in 2008-09 to 24 goals and 71 points last season.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Reirden said. "He nearly doubled his point total from the year before. But he’s got to again continue to make the next step and get stronger and work on his two-way game and not have the offense come at the expense of defense."

Another sign of Jeffrey’s preparedness level was his grab-the-bull-by-the-horns approach to a new position. Usually a center, Jeffrey was moved to left wing last season — perhaps a sign of the organization’s plans to bring him into the mix. The decision clearly worked out well for both parties, as he led the team in points and was second in goals.

Despite some of the positives in Jeffrey’s game, when it comes to the potential of pulling on a Penguins uniform, there are no guarantees.

"It’s a competition," he said. "It’s the reason you’re playing the game. We all wish each other the best, but I know that I have to go out there and work hard and do what I can because I know it’s my job to go out there and try to earn it."

And if Jeffrey doesn’t, Tangradi, Johnson or any number of other candidates will be sure to. Ultimately, though, it’s a good problem to have. Or as Reirden put it, "the future is very bright in Pittsburgh."

Yet again.